Among all of the wildlife throughout Western New York, none may be more reviled than the timber rattlesnake, but they may also be one of the most misunderstood.
Thought to be aggressive like their western cousins, the timber rattlesnake is actually a shy and secretive reptile. Although their bite can be fatal, the Timber Rattler certainly doesn't deserve its ferocious reputation.
Tom Hudak is a Wildlife Educator specializing in venomous snakes.
"Being venomous does not make a snake aggressive or nasty. Some are, some are not. Some garter snakes will bite when you pick them up. All water snakes will bite when you pick them up, and they're harmless except for tiny little teeth. These timbers are gentle animals."
Once fairly common throughout the region, the snakes are now confined mostly to the Southern Tier, and are considered a threatened species. Their very nature has made them an easy target for those seeking to exterminate them.
Marty DeLong is a Wildlife Tech with the New York Department Of Environmental Conservation.
"In our area here in the Southern Tier, we are fairly close to at least a half a dozen known den sites, probably more like ten or so. However we're finding that there's even more out there that can be discovered."
Hudak continues, "they used to extend up into the Rochester area. It isn't that they don't play well with humans, it's that humans don't play well with them, so as humans expanded into their areas, they were killed. Being a dening species, if you know where the den is, you can wipe out an entire den."
Snakes are beneficial to the environment, and are an especially important factor in controlling rodent populations. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has been studying the timber rattlesnake in an effort to preserve this important part of New York's wildlife heritage.
On a recent foray into the Southern Tier hills, wildlife biologists used high tech methods to track a previously captured snake, one that was fitted with a transmitter, in a effort to learn more about their behavior. On this day, the tagged snake was located underground in a previously undiscovered den, an important find for the biologists.
"If you've got a den in one spot, and another den that's two miles away, those two groups may not interbreed," says Hudak. "But if you've got a den in between, then you've got animals from that center den moving in both directions. Then you've got the gene then flowing from site-a to site-b to site-c, and down the line and back and forth. And of course the more you mix the genes up, the healthier the animals are."
Although all of this effort may seem unnecessary for those who may find strange the idea of protecting venomous snakes, the timber rattlesnake remains an important part of the ecosystem and is as worthy of protection as any other endangered animal.
"They've co-existed for so many years, why shouldn't they be allowed to survive," asks DeLong.
Hudak agrees, "they were here first, and we need to preserve the legacy here. We're just passing through this state or this area, and we need to be caretakers of it."